By: Hank Hutchinson, M.D.
The statistics are alarming. An estimated 9 million adults in the U.S. have osteoporosis, and over 48 million adults have low bone mass according to the National Osteoporosis Foundation. Most will go undiagnosed and untreated.
What is Osteoporosis?
The word osteoporosis itself means “porous bone.” Bones contain a matrix of small spaces in which bone marrow, nerves and blood vessels important to body function can be found. When the bone thins and the spaces become enlarged, there is a loss of bone density and osteoporosis occurs.
Throughout life, the body is removing old bone and replacing it with new bone. As children and teenagers we form more bone than we lose, increasing our bone density until about our mid-twenties. Around our mid twenties we reach what is called “peak bone mass." Generally, the bone density we have at this point is the most we will have for the rest of our lives. The higher our peak bone mass, the less likely it is we will develop osteoporosis.
After we reach peak bone mass, we may start to lose more bone than we make. Around age 50, bone loss speeds up. In women, changes in hormones due to menopause can cause even more bone to be lost, placing them at a greater risk of developing osteoporosis. This condition is not limited to women however. Aging in both genders, numerous health conditions and medications have been associated with bone loss or interference in bone formation.
Why should I be concerned?
While osteoporosis often does not have any obvious symptoms, it places you at a very high risk for fragility fractures. These are fractures that result from falls from standing height or less (i.e. tripping over an item or losing your balance and falling). More people in the U.S. suffer fragility fractures than heart attack, stroke and breast cancer combined.
Fragility fractures occur most often in the hip, spine and wrist and can be debilitating for the elderly, sometimes even deadly. Once a person has experienced a fragility fracture of the hip, their chance of another fracture is more than doubled, and approximately 20 percent of patients who suffer a hip fracture die within one year.
Unfortunately, most people don’t realize they have osteoporosis until a fragility fracture occurs, because you do not feel your bones getting weaker. Individuals with a more advanced form of this health condition might notice themselves getting shorter or their spine starting to curve. Again, these changes do not happen overnight and are not always evident before a fracture occurs.
What Can I Do About It?
The good news is there are steps you can take to prevent the potentially debilitating, often life-threatening fragility fractures associated with osteoporosis
- Start young. Building as much bone density as possible in your youth will help prevent osteoporosis. It’s never too early to start talking to your children about building and keeping healthy bones.
- Get adequate calcium. The recommended daily amount of calcium for adults over 50 is 1200mg/day using calcium rich foods. For those unable to get calcium through dietary intake, consult your healthcare provider regarding the use of calcium supplements.
- Vitamin D Intake. Vitamin D plays a critical role in helping your body absorb calcium. Sunshine and vitamin-D fortified foods can help you meet your daily quota. Vitamin D supplements are also available and frequently necessary. Discuss with your healthcare provider which options are best for you.
- Exercise: Strengthening, balance, postural and weight-bearing exercises help increase bone strength and reduce your risk of falling and fracturing a bone.
- Fall prevention measures: There are many steps that will reduce the chance of falling in your home and community. A fall safety check list can be found at: http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/CheckListForSafety.html
- Don’t smoke. Tobacco is toxic to your bones. Consult your healthcare provider for assistance and investigate smoking cessation programs.
- Limit alcohol intake. On average, alcohol intake of three or more drinks per day is detrimental to bone health.
If you are concerned you may have developed osteoporosis, seek advice about bone mineral density (BMD) testing (often referred to as a DXA scan) from your physician. Also discuss medications that have been proven effective at minimizing bone loss and/or reducing the risk of future fractures.
For more information, go to www.nof.org.